“Nothing Special: Living Zen” by Charlotte Joko Beck
This book has been around for years, but I only got around to reading it recently.
“Nothing Special” is decidedly Western in approach. It is designed in short segments, each relating to a specific idea and all pointed toward applying zen in a practical way to your daily life. There is very little of that obtuse zenspeak stuff about “no-self” and “suchness.” And there is refreshing lack of Sanskrit and Japanese words to stumble over. It’s written by a Westerner, for Westerners.
This is not to say the book is simplistic. It covers a lot of ground. But its use of metaphors and analogies, and its conversational style, appealed to me. The approach of the book is that of a zen teacher discussing a particular topic, sometimes followed by questions from students and answers from Joko Beck. It’s a very accessible approach to the difficult subject of zen.
The nature of the book allows it to be read in doses. There is no need to read it cover-to-cover; indeed, I’ve been dipping into it for a while now. The chapters don’t necessarily need to be read in order, either. Each is a mostly self-contained essay.
Is this book a good introduction to zen? It’s hard to say. The segments are written from presentations Joko Beck did for her students; in other words, they are the words of a teacher discussing topics her students already know something about. You won’t find a lot of instruction on how to meditate properly, for instance. Other zen concepts are clear in context to someone who is familiar with them, but may be less clear to someone not familiar with subjects such as karma and rebirth. So if this book is your first introduction to zen, you may struggle some as you read it. (Of course, even if you are a zen master, you may struggle some as you read it …)
For someone who has read a bit about zen and wants to learn more — especially if you are wondering what to do with all this zen stuff once you’ve started learning about it — then “Nothing Special: Living Zen” is a very good start.